On what should be a day of reflection and optimism, Thomas Mortensen, Christian Aid Country Manager for Colombia writes about the continued killing of human rights defenders and the significant threat that this poses to the country’s peace process.
9 April marks the Day of Remembrance and Solidarity with Victims in Colombia.
This should have been a day of celebration. However, due to the ongoing and systematic killing of human rights defenders, the general feeling here in Bogota is bittersweet.
The most dangerous country for human rights defenders
In a period of only 14 months, the National Ombudsman has registered 156 killings and 5 forced disappearances of human rights defenders, placing Colombia at the top of the list of dangerous countries for human rights defenders worldwide.
These human rights defenders were mostly local community leaders who had the courage to fight for the rights of their community by denouncing human rights violations, being involved in local peace building initiatives and striving for social justice.
Encouraged by the peace process, many were hoping to get land back which had been previously lost to criminal networks consisting of neo-paramilitary groups, large land owners, local public officials and/or private companies. Without land, families in rural Colombia are destined to live in poverty.
A threat to the peace process
The killings of human rights defenders are not only tragedies for the families and communities directly affected, but a major threat to the success of the peace process.
Without the realisation of human rights in Colombia, there can be no peace.
Ironically, one of the causes is illegal armed groups (neo-paramilitary groups and the ELN) taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the FARC. In addition, what we see as a lack of political will means the killings are not thoroughly investigated by state authorities.
The dismantling of these strong and complex regional criminal networks is one of the major challenges to the peace process.
Prominent human rights defender, Alberto Yepes (pictured above) who has played a key role in documenting thousands of extrajudicial killings by the military and is under threat himself, told me:
‘It is not right that we have to pay with our lives for trying to build peace.’